NJ-SPJ and Major News Organizations Urge Governor to Reject Changes to Open Public Records Act

Update: Both houses of the state legislature voted to approve the changes and send them to Governor Murphy for signature. NJ-SPJ and other organizations are calling for the Governor to veto the bill.

“Citizens must be allowed to freely test the bounds of law to have a healthy democracy, not just reflexively accept that the government knows best.” 

NEWARK, N.J. — The New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ) sent a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy and state lawmakers this morning urging them to reject changes to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). 

Both legislative chambers were preparing to vote on the bill today. 

A coalition of news outlets, journalism groups and good government advocates signed the letter, including NJ Advance Media and the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.   

“We’re concerned that state lawmakers who have a tenuous grasp of many aspects of OPRA are leading an orchestrated crackdown of our public records law,” says Isaac Avilucea, NJ-SPJ board member and former Trentonian reporter who relied on public records to watchdog New Jersey’s capital city. “They’ve seemingly had in ear plugs at public hearings, tuning out dozens of stakeholders who told them what’ll happen if OPRA is repealed. We’re hoping Gov. Murphy actually listens to voters who don’t want changes to the ‘people’s law.'”

Public records are a cornerstone of democracy, helping reporters uncover stories about political corruption, government waste and police misconduct. Reporters view proposed changes to OPRA as an existential threat to their profession.

State lawmakers advanced the bill out of committee last week despite hours of testimony from advocates about the bill’s flaws. 

Among their concerns, they say the bill further shrouds emails in secrecy and gives records custodians power to deny access to many documents, including email logs that help reporters identify specific correspondence of interest.

Critics say the legislative process hasn’t been transparent. After the bill was fast-tracked for consideration, lawmakers subbed out committee members opposed to the legislation. They replaced them with colleagues who voted to release the bill.   

Gov. Phil Murphy hasn’t said whether he’ll sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk. He has expressed support for transparency but dodged questions about the most controversial aspects of the bill, including eliminating attorney fees for citizens who win public records lawsuits.

The letter is part of NJ-SPJ’s ongoing efforts to safeguard public records in the Garden State. Last month, the group organized a forum, “Defending OPRA” at Rider University, featuring expert panelists who said state leaders must consider how New Jerseyans have overwhelmingly rejected changes to OPRA, which was signed into law in 2002.

“Signing this 20 years ago was one of Gov. [Jim] McGreevey’s biggest accomplishments,” Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said during the panel. “And signing this bill 20 years later will be one of the most notorious things that Gov. Murphy does.”

Additional Signatories

After the release of this letter today, additional organizations asked to be signatories. New signatories are:

  • Associated Press
  • Axios
  • Heady NJ
  • National Press Club Journalism Institute
  • New Hope Free Press
  • Public Square Amplified

You can read or download the letter in the viewer below.

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